POLICE Commissioner Mr Li Kwan-ha has expressed concern that drinking by minors could lead to more juvenile crime or serious youth problems such as drug abuse.
Mr Li, who is a non-drinker, said ''alcohol can impair the judgement and senses'' of young people and that he is strongly against underage drinking.
He pledged to continue police checks on licensed premises although he emphasised it was not a high priority because of other important anti-crime tasks.
''The problem of adults and young people drinking is not a serious one - as far as alcohol is concerned, it is not a problem.'' And, although he disapproved of drinking by people under 18, Mr Li was coy about whether penalties should be raised to deter the sale of alcohol to minors.
''It's a matter for the courts to decide,'' he said.
Concern groups, meanwhile, have criticised low prosecution figures for businesses selling liquor to minors, claiming it showed police and Hongkong society were not taking the problem seriously.
According to police statistics, in the past two years seven offenders in Lan Kwai Fong have been prosecuted for selling liquor to minors.
No legal action has been taken against bars in Wan Chai, Mongkok or Tsim Sha Tsui for the offence, although several pubs in Tsim Sha Tsui are known to serve under 18-year-olds, according to police.
A police spokesman said enforcement of the underage drinking law was fraught with problems.
But a counsellor with the KELY (Kids Everywhere Like You) support group, Mr Chris Simpson, suggested the low prosecution rate was sending the wrong message to bars who flout the law on underage drinking.
''The figures suggest there is no underage drinking problem but the fact of the matter is it is on the increase,'' Mr Simpson said.
''But there is no hard message coming from the police force or society.'' The vice-chairman of the Community Drug Advisory Council, Dr Jeffrey Day, said the low prosecution figures were not surprising given the police workload.
He called for an increase in fines to deter bars from serving minors.
''It's not necessary to step up checks if the penalties are high enough. But if I throw litter into the harbour I would pay a higher fine than bars serving underage drinkers,'' he said.
Legislator and Commissioner for Youth, Mr Eric Li Ka-cheung, said he would seek an explanation for the prosecution figures and any enforcement problems when he meets government officials on Monday.
A spokesman for Chinese Alcoholics Anonymous said the real problem was not drinking in bars but the availability of alcohol to minors at convenience stores and supermarkets.